A bill that will require expressed consent before bodies are released for medical experimentation or teaching purposes was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The law will change the present policy of bodies left unclaimed at the Medical Examiner’s office for more than 48 hours being released to schools automatically.
The legislation was sponsored by Senator Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz (D-Queens), who felt the present law violated the rights of families of the deceased. It passed both houses of the legislature overwhelmingly and its signing was praised by its many supporters.
“After numerous cases of unclaimed bodies being delivered to medical schools for uses that may have been in stark contrast with the religious or personal wishes of next of kin, this law now makes it illegal to show such disrespect to the deceased. My colleague Assemblyman Simanowitz and I were both aware of heart-breaking cases that pained families and we feared that these scenarios would repeat. Now, these worries come to an end,” said Sen. Felder.
Historically, bodies left unclaimed at the New York City Medical Examiner’s office were made available to the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in Manhattan for training purposes. A smaller number was also given to medical schools.
When Mayor de Blasio decided to suspend the practice, AAMI sued, claiming that the move impeded their operation. The case was settled in spring of 2015 and the city resumed its previous practice.
Both the Agudath Israel of America and the Orthodox Union had advocated for the bill’s signing, directly petitioning the governor with letters.
“This important new law will prevent in the future some of the terrible human heartbreak and violation of halachah that have all too often occurred,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice President of Agudah.
Associated Medical Schools of New York announced two weeks ago that they would stop accepting unclaimed bodies, presumably in anticipation of the bill’s signing.
In recent years, medical schools have increased programs that encourage voluntary body donations for the training of physicians and research purposes. The two city-based schools without such programs, CUNY College of Medicine and Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, have now announced they will begin similar initiatives.
American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service had remained firm in its opposition to the bill, claiming that it will create shortages of funeral directors and related professions in New York.
Rabbi Yanky Mayer, Director of Misaskim, has seen the issue evolve in his work with the Office of the Medical Examiner and was an enthusiastic supporter of the bill.
“This law doesn’t have to do with religion, it’s about basic human decency,” he said. “For Jews it has additional meaning because of the value we give to kvod hameis. This will help save many of the John Does that are Jewish to come to kevurah. But really, this is not an achievement for us, but for mankind.”